Our Neck of the Woods
Vol. XXVI, no. 1
What is Pilgrimtown now? Pilgrimtown is gone. Pilgrimtown is nothing. Gone is rural route X. Gone is the mini-mall and Sharkey's combination automotive parts, scuba dive outlet, and adult bookstore. Gone is Saint Dolores' glow-in-the dark cemetery. And gone, gone is the Mold-o-Form plastics factory: the true town, the town within the town, the nation's sole producer of commemorative plastic plates, green pee pee dolls, and life-size, deer-shaped lawn decorations, the same factory where the boys and girls of Pilgrimtown lost limbs, lost lives, and worse still, lost their time, and in the end, were each given a choice for their severance: a set of President Eisenhower collectible plates or a family of life-size deer to display on their front lawn, in quiet exchange for the hours, and days, and years of their faded existence. Gone is the dream of the new mobile home. Gone is the notion of in-ground plumbing. Gone are the fantasies of new wigs, liposuction, divorce, a yellow Corvette. Gone is the world of what we knew of just about everything.
If Pilgrimtown had an anatomy, if it is possible for a Pennsylvania town to have organs, the way men and women have eyes and ears and brains, then the Mold-o-Form factory was its hands, its sick, embittered heart, and its terrible gnashing teeth. There were hundreds of vats, hundreds of sheet presses, and hundreds of assembly lines within the plant, and yet, all had been coordinated to move perfectly in time, much like the circulatory system of a madman, but the sheer noise of it all and the accompanying weird, green vapor that seemed to rise with each compression of its mechanical heart forced people in Pilgrimtown to speak very, very quickly, in between monstrous beats and leaks of strange glowing steam: "Yes-sir-I-would-be-happy-to-work-overtime-thank-you-sir."
First built in 1943 as a producer of plastics for military use, the plant came under commercial ownership after the war and secured for itself a safe monopoly in the unsure world of American plastic novelties. Mold-o-Form's best seller to date? "Deer decoration number 3: fawn gently sipping at a brook." The popularity of this particular deer was somewhat unsettling. In row after row of big white houses in every suburb of every city in the world, there that particular deer stood, nicknamed, "Fannie the fawn," by Mold-o-form's industrious salesmen. The deer was ubiquitous, meaning appearing in such numbers as to be totally terrifying: its head bent, lowered over slender legs, its spry white tail rising skywards, the poor animal drinking at some imaginary river no one could see, and certainly someone, some salesman had to ask why: what was wrong in all of our hearts, what were we wishing for buying this animal and putting it on our front lawns, in, bed, at night, almost asleep, what part of our world was missing that drove us to purchase this little plastic animal, put it in the backseat of our station wagons, and display it proudly in front of our homes, for all our neighbors to see? What did we hate about our ourselves that we were trying to compensate for maybe? We don't know, we still don't know the answer to that question really.
Because it all ended like this: Bob Underwood was foreman of Mold-o-Form line number sixty, which produced "Fannie the fawn," life-size deer decoration number 3, "fawn gently sipping at a brook." He was a likeable guy, in his forties, with a wife and two kids. He was Pilgrimtown's high school junior varsity wrestling coach, with a short blonde crew cut, a medium-sized gut, and arms large enough to carry four life-size plastic deer at a time. He was a good foreman, suspicious of the two-hour line position change, whereby workers would switch positions to keep from losing their minds, so he asked everyone what their best spot on the assembly line was and allowed them to work that for the eight hours straight, raising quality, worker morale, and productivity. Line number sixty also had the least amount of flash fires, which were short, powerful explosions caused by conveyer belt friction against the newly-formed and still warm plastic deer bodies, usually the result of chit-chat and/or daydreaming.
In secret, late at night, sometimes after the wife and children had gone to bed, Bob, at the kitchen table, would sketch design ideas for new lawn decorations: a trio of scampering raccoons, a sharp-beaked blue-striped heron spearing a salmon, and his own personal favorite, a motherly doe nursing two brown-eyed fawns. He showed no one these sketches, not even his wife. Instead, he kept them hidden in a tiny notebook which he carried in his back pants pocket at all times, hopeful that one day, some administrator, some hotshot like Mr. Bruin, would ask him what he thought of something, and Bob would smile and pause and then take out the drawings and really show them what he could do.
A girl was hired for line number sixty one morning, a foreign girl named Elsa with dark eyes and fluffy brown hair, a girl new to both the town and the country. It was said she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe and had been a worker in Mold-o-Form Factory Thirty-Eight before it had accidentally exploded and disintegrated most of her town in a single, iridescent blast of green plastic flame. As compensation, the twelve remaining survivors of the plant disaster were given jobs and relocated to the States with permanent work visas only good at the Pilgrimtown factory. The foreign girl, Elsa, had a small face and wide eyes but also a mouth that seemed impossible in admitting pleasure. It was the look all of them had. The girl was very slight, very tiny, and because of her size, Elsa was immediately put in the third position on the life-size deer assembly line. It was her job to paint the left eyes of the lifeless deer as they passed, each socket receiving a single, circular dab of glossy black, while another worker, some non-union worker, someone like Mary Edwards, who was only part-time anyway, would, at the same time, stand across the great black conveyer belt, and paint the right eye. Position three and position four, directly across from position three, were the only positions where you had the opportunity to look at someone else's face at all during the eight hour shift. It was a position typically given to the weak, to the old, the infirmed, and often-times, to ladies.
The girl, Elsa, did fine in position three for nearly a week, never under painting or worse, over-painting, which was the real hazard of the job, whereby the poor deer looked like a tarted-up southern prostitute overcoming its grief with hard black tears, no, the girl used the right amount of paint for the job, which allowed Clyde Sitwell, a thirty-year veteran of the plant and position three's previous occupant, to be kept on permanent fire duty, which was the most vaulted job on the line, because it consisted of sitting beside the industrial fire extinguisher and reading the paper all day. Bob, as line foreman, was happy with the new arrangement: Clyde had been a notorious over-painter and would sometimes miss a deer or two which left Bob in bed at night wondering about the fates of these poor, partially-blinded animals, standing stagnant in their posts on some stranger's front lawn, now easy prey for some larger, plastic animal, blind in their good eye with fear.
For some reason, Mary Edwards did not come to work one day. Her twin sons had come down with a real volatile strain of the chicken pox, their tongues, eyeballs and lungs puffing up with the small, fierce red dots, so Bob decided he would take her spot in position four instead of reassigning everybody. What happened was this: the belt started moving at eight o' clock on the dot, Bob grabbed his brush, dabbed some black paint, watched the first "fawn gently sipping at a brook," coming upright and placid, down the line towards him, Charlie Wong in position one, attached the left antler, Walt Hiccama, attached the right antler at the same exact time, the two of them like dancers in a strange, industrial choreography, the deer, with its small, noble antlers, paused for a moment at position three and four, where Bob dabbed the paint in its round socket, secretly feeling the miracle of life as the blackness quickly hardened into a shiny eye, he saw the girl, Elsa, do the same, with one, fancy swipe, and just as the fawn was headed to spot five and six for a dusting of white spots, the girl, the foreigner, began to sing:
"I am walking in the woods
No, you are not there
I walk among the dead
Their eyes are full of tears"
At once, Bob over-painted, using twice, three-times as much paint as needed on the next fawn, the girl's voice like a tiny, wilted, invisible violin whispering in his ears, and he could hear it, he could really hear it even with his orange plastic earplugs in. "What are you doing?" Bob shouted from above the heavy whirl of the conveyer belt at the girl.
"I am singing," she shouted back, dabbing a glob of black paint in place again. Bob looked down, filled the next deer's eye and listened as she continued.
"I am walking in the woods
The forest is so dark
I walk among the dead
The trees are filled with arms"
Once again, he over-painted, scooping the excess paint off with his fingers, making a terrible black streak down the poor fawn's nose. It was as if somehow, the factory was gone and the two of them, him and this tiny dark-eyed girl, were somewhere else, somewhere so quiet, in the middle of a snowstorm and she was singing to him, she was singing to him to keep them both alive, because there was an avalanche of some kind, there was a glacier of white hanging over them both, and they were pressed together so tightly, and there was nothing around them but an abundance of white, the noise, the world, the sound of everything was gone, all but her voice, this voice which was awful, really awful, but gentle in its own way, and just then he heard the conveyer grind to a halt and the familiar red flashing light signifying a bottleneck on the line lit up and when he looked, he saw three deer piled eyeless, lifeless, stuck in front of him. It was in that moment, in that moment there, that Bob soon saw he had been daydreaming, because he hadn't, no, he had not daydreamed in years.
At the Pilgrimtown junior varsity wrestling meet later that day, while home town favorite Junior Williams, an enormous, white-eyed, albino sophomore, who wrecked the scales at nearly three hundred pounds, wrenched the dazed, gawking, freckled competition, some luckless freshman named Billy Grout, into the most dreaded fireman's carry, lifting the poor kid high into the sky, then dropping him straight to the ground with what was usually the most satisfying sound heard all day, Bob noticed he barely even cared. Even as the ref tore the boys apart, big Junior howling in a fury, gripping and tearing at his opponent's nylon singlette with his fingers like a madman, and even as the crowd could see the freckled kid's arm was split like a matchstick, right in the middle, the heavy end of his hand dangling weak and broken like the black, flinted head, all Bob could think about was hearing that girl's singing at the factory again.
For the sake of productivity and quality of line six the next day, Bob switched Owen Anders to position four, and took Owen's job at position seven, adding the stripe of white to the animal's pointy tail. It did not matter, though. Even two positions away, with the orange, foamy plastic earplugs jammed hard into his ears, with his eyes planted firmly on the shiny bob of white plastic simulating the fragile puff of what, with one swab of white paint, would be a deer-tail, he could still make out her singing. He stamped his feet, he coughed, pressed the earplugs all the way up into his brain cavity, but still, he could make out the words as clear as if she had been whispering them to him herself.
"I have fallen for a soldier boy
A boy without a head
I have fallen for a soldier boy
My one true love is dead"
What kind of girl was this? From what kind of world? He could see her, alone, crowded in a thicket of bare trees and white frost, surrounded by the arms and legs and burning uniforms of the recently deposed, the recently exploded, from some heinous civil war or some other factory fire, bare white skulls falling from the electric orange sky all around her like snow.
By lunchtime, Bob found he had to talk to her. In the break room, he stumbled around, clearing his throat. He stood, hovering beside her where she sat, and saw she had taken off her brown uniform hat. Where the hat had been was a sheen of newly-shorn short brown hair, it all being freshly-cut, a few strays of silkiness fading in the white break room light, a little longer than the rest. The girl was eating a dingy piece of white bread with a stain of yellow mustard on it, and finally, standing there, Bob thought to say:
"You cut your hair?"
"I did," is what she said. She squinted at him like he was perhaps a child or insane person, then went back to crudely nibbling at her crumbly bread.
"Why did you cut it?" he asked.
"To sell. I make money for hair. I pay landlord for my heat."
He nodded and decided that was all he really wanted to know. He went to his usual spot in the break room, opened his lunch pail, and sat down across from Owen Anders, watching the horror of what was cheese and mayonnaise in the other man's gaping mouth, somehow still wondering about everything.
In bed, at home with his wife that night, he asked, "Did you ever stop and think what am I doing all this for?"
"What, hun?" They were side by side, Bob lying on his back in his shorts, Patsy in curlers and a pink robe, reading a gory, paperback mystery, with her back turned to him.
"Did you ever stop, like in the middle of doing something, and say, 'What the heck did I waste fifteen years doing all of this for?'"
"Oh, like about twenty times a day," she laughed and turned, pinching his middle. She was an RN at the factory medical center. At the end of her shift, her ankles would be swollen large as melons. Bob frowned, thinking, looking away and feeling hurt for some reason.
"Oh, dear, is this about the section foreman again?" she asked.
"Well, I said it before and I'll say it again. What I think they did to you was totally unfair. If anyone deserved that job, it was you. What line foreman has the best quality rates? What line foreman has the highest productivity? What line foreman has been more loyal to the company?"
"Nobody," Bob sighed.
"And that's why we all know you deserved that job more than anybody. And I'm sure, next year, when your review comes up again, you'll get it." Bob nodded and turned on his side, facing the pink seashell-colored wall. It did not matter. The job did not matter. A line foreman promotion would not save him, nothing like that even mattered to him anymore.
In the middle of the big Mold-o-Form union meeting, Bob suddenly wanted to stand up in front of everyone, all his friends, all his coworkers, the whole world of the plastics factory to announce his big idea: the lifelike drawing he had made for a new deer lawn decoration design, that of a lovely, svelte doe nursing two of her wide-eyed young. But no, he did not. Instead, he finished collecting the union dues, placed the folded, mangled, mishandled cash in the shiny white lockbox, turned the key in the slot, and handed the box to Treasurer Simmky, who would, along with the new union applications, go through the bundle, record the amount of cash, and place it in the safe in the Mold-o-Form union office, where it would sit quietly until the end of the month, after all of the union's finances had been paid. He nodded to Simmky, a square-faced oaf with a face like a dented pick-up truck, who nodded back, then slipped the lockbox key back on his keyring. He thought once more about announcing his big idea, the mother deer and her two young, but stopped himself, finding instead the comfort of a pink jelly donut.
At the end of one of the girl's songs the next day, a song that went like this: "Burning/ Burning/ Burning from the cold...Burning/ Burning/ Burning from the cold," Bob knew at once that he would steal the money from the lockbox to give to the strange foreign girl. He was as sure of this as he was of the merit of his design for the mother deer and her two suckling babies, somehow in his mind, it was part of the same thing, the need to do something good, to do something pretty.
What he thought would happen would be this: he would steal the money, give it to the girl, she would disappear, Simmky would see the money was gone, and someone would immediately suspect the Mold-o-Form administration, someone like that fucker Mr. Bruin who was anti-union the whole time and always coming up with ways to split them up, or maybe someone would lay blame on Simmky or even him maybe, then a series of allegations would be made, the factory owners would somehow be rightfully blamed, because it was their office, their safe, their lack of security, and then the union members would elect to go on strike. Why? Because any reason was a good enough reason to avoid the factory for a day. Production would get backed up, decorative deer would lie in their molds, half-formed, eye-less, tail-less, without their happy white spots, collectable plates would go un-etched and face-less, the tiny green baby dolls would go without their heads, consumers would call and complain, someone from the administration would make a speech, the union would stand strong, the factory and then the town would grind to a halt, the massive presses would finally go quiet, the green vapor no longer rising, people would hear the nervous, joyful whispers they had been uttering to each other their whole lives, plastics would be considered a thing of the past, the factory would close and a forest would grow in its place, and somehow, things would change, things would really change.
Bob fingered the lockbox key in his pocket and knew he would do it by the end of the day.
After work and outside the corrugated metal warehouse for "Fannie the fawn," deer decoration number three, Bob took the girl's small white hand in his own, gently opened her fingers, and placed the hot, bundle of cash in her palm. He looked at her, really looked at her for the first time, the short snub nose, the dark gray circles under the dark, hopeless eyes, the lips which were chapped and rigid and doubtful of everything, he looked at her, then let go of her hand, and waited. He waited for all the plastic presses in the whole world of Pilgrimtown to be quiet, to be hushed by the huff and release of their own, phosphorescent green steam, and then he said:
"Go away. Go far away from here. Take a plane back to wherever you came from and don't ever come back here again." Beneath her dirty white winter jacket, the girl's brown eyes got big, big and not brown for one moment, but a kind of flecked green, a kind of lovely shiny green like two planets made entirely of gas, and then she turned her fist into a tiny knot, looked over her shoulder, and ran for the gates. Her hood was flapping as she moved, spouts of her breath turning to fog, the sound of her feet in snow, soft and unstopping, then disappearing into the employee parking lot, she was gone and it was true. It was the most beautiful, most decent thing Bob had seen since he couldn't remember when. In a moment, Bob turned back towards the entrance to press number sixty and, without even looking, he knew. The factory was on fire again